Winter is certainly off to a good start on the West Coast. While this onslaught of rain and snow has presented some challenges, it makes for a good opportunity to curl up in front of a fire. Whether your home has a fireplace or not, there are options for most people to gather around the hearth. Having a functioning fireplace can add value and desireability to a home.
Out of necessity, most houses built before the mid-20th century have a fireplace or woodstove. With the advent of gas and electric heating, inclusion of wood-burning devices in home construction has been slowly phased out over the last 50 years. There are still plenty of homes with fireplaces. For those of us who have a fireplace, often the question is what to do with that space.
If you have wood-burning fireplace, the quickest option for a traditional fireplace is to… burn wood. It is a natural, renewable resource, and it is a good way to stay warm when the power goes out. However, it does produce pollution. In much of California and the Truckee Meadows, air quality is a concern. Authorities issue burn codes, or spare-the-air days when conditions get bad. So that is a factor to take into consideration.
With a traditional wood burning fireplace, most of the heat goes up the chimney. One way to increase efficiency is to use a fireplace heat exchanger. This is much like a normal fireplace grate that holds the burning wood up off of the floor, except it is made with open, hollow tubes. As the fire burns, it draws cool air in through the bottom of the tube, and blows hot air out the top.
There are some things to consider if you decide to burn wood. First of all, you’ll need to buy wood, and have a place to store it. Also, you will need to keep the flue clean and free of creosote build up. There is a significant amount of clean up of ashes that must be done regularly. And, of course you’ll need to dispose of the ashes. At the end of the day, having a wood burning fireplace can be fairly time-consuming and expensive.
Many homeowners opt to convert a traditional fireplace to gas log. This offers the ability to have actual flame in the living room, with far less maintenance, clean-up and pollution. Prices for gas log kits are fairly inexpensive, however it will require a gas-line to be routed to and installed. That can add significantly to the cost of the upgrade.
Another option that is gaining popularity is the electric fireplace insert. Most of these units can be installed quickly and are affordable. The typical unit uses a combination of an electric heating element and lights to create the appearance of flames. Some models even use HD displays, stereo sound and are WiFi capable. Since no actual flame is present, this can be an option in homes without a chimney. One drawback is that electric heating is fairly expensive compared to natural gas. Also, when the power goes out, it won’t operate.
Ethanol burners are another option that is gaining popularity. As the name suggests, these burn alcohol to produce heat and flames. There are numerous models available, from fireplace inserts to table top versions. With sufficient oxygen available, an ethanol flame produces no Carbon Monoxide. In terms of air quality, it is safer to use than a wax candle, making it a viable option in homes without a chimney or flue. They do produce some heat, but its main purpose is asthetics.
If it has been a while since your fireplace has been used, and you’re unfamiliar with its condition, it is worth having it inspected and cleaned prior to firing it up. No matter what option you choose, the appeal of a fireplace can add some comfort to these long Winter nights.
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